UPPER WEST SIDE — Supporters of a zoning proposal aimed at preventing large chain stores and bank branches on certain neighborhood retail strips spoke out in favor of local mom-and-pop shops Tuesday in advance of a City Council vote on the measure.
On Thursday, the City Council Land Use Subcommittee will decide whether to adopt the proposed zoning regulations for Columbus Avenue, Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway under the “Upper West Side Neighborhood Streets Proposal."
The new regulations have been five years in the making and are a special focus of City Councilmember Gale Brewer. The plan has nearly unanimous support from the area’s community board, which has been championing the measures as a way to preserve smaller stores and prevent more banks that advocates claim deaden the pedestrian experience on the Upper West Side.
“Small mom-and-pops are the heart and soul of the neighborhood,” Brewer said at a City Council hearing on the matter Tuesday. “They’re people who help your children, keep you safe, and they’re a really important aspect of our neighborhood.”
Laura Smith, of the Department of City Planning, described at the hearing the committee’s proposal, which would apply only to new businesses opening six months after the adoption of the plan and not existing businesses or those currently in the planning stages.
Under the proposal, new banks would be limited to a width of 25 feet on ground floors along large sections of Columbus and Amsterdam avenues, as well as along Broadway. If a bank larger than 25 feet currently in operation eventually gives way to a clothing store or a pet food store, for example, it could not later be converted back to a bank after the new rules take effect.
New residential lobbies would also be limited to a 25-foot width on all three avenues.
On Columbus and Amsterdam avenues, the plan calls for two establishments at a minimum for every 50 feet of retail zoning lot frontage, and no single establishment could be wider than 40 feet. Supermarkets, schools, houses of worship and stores less than 30 feet deep would be exempt. Additionally, Broadway would have no limitations in frontage size.
The commission has also proposed a path for businesses to seek exemption from the regulations if the surrounding blocks have “high vacancy,” which was purposefully not defined. Additionally, if a business could prove that a larger frontage was crucial to its operations and that expanded establishments weren’t already on the block, it could apply for an exemption up to 60 feet.
The plan stipulated that all new sites had to have windows covering at least 50 percent of their frontage between 2 and 12 feet high, to encourage window-shopping and openness in the neighborhood.
The goal of the new zoning regulations, as expressed by the Planning Commission, is to “promote an active streetscape and preserve a multi-store and active retail environment.”
Part of the rationale for imposing the new rules, Smith explained, is the high density of residents and limited commercial space on the Upper West Side compared to other neighborhoods. For example, the Upper East Side has 50-percent more commercial space per resident, she said.
“Where you once had multiple stores and entries, a new store would come in and reduce the diversity of options,” Smith added.
After Brewer and Community Board 7 reached out to the city, the City Planning Commission surveyed 10 New York City neighborhoods with similar residential and commercial makeups for guidance, including Hamilton Heights, Kingsbridge, Astoria, Jackson Heights, Park Slope, and Flatbush and Nostrand Avenue.
At the hearing Tuesday, the commission heard a chorus of complaints about large banks being a detriment to the character of the Upper West Side.
“We recognize that ATMs are useful — we’re not seeking to inconvenience the pedestrian," Smith said. "Twenty-five feet is sufficient to allow for an elevator and then bring shoppers upstairs."
Mike Smith, president of the New York Bankers Association, said the proposal would discourage new banks, which serve the community through charitable giving, small business loans and other services.
“We believe strongly that this proposal discriminates against banks,” he said.
Brewer steered clear of airing her feelings against banks, though she nonetheless made her opinion known.
“Don’t get me started on banks," she said. "People know how I feel.”
Board 7 member Mel Wymore argued that banks are low-activity operations using their large frontages as advertising space.
“We’ve essentially become a billboard,” he said.
Susan Gwertzman, the only Upper West Side resident at the hearing who opposed the new zoning regulations, said chain stores offer affordability to residents.
“I feel that the large chain stores are not villains,” she said, recounting her love of a local PC Richard & Son and CVS. “Affordable is also part of neighborhood character."
However, members of Community Board 7, which has been pressing for the changes, expressed overwhelming support for the plan.
“For once we are ahead of the curve,” said board chairman Mark Diller.
“This proposal is not anti-growth or anti-business,” Wymore added. “It’s time to take a pause, and that’s what this proposal does."